Compact liquid vs. big air gets even bigger as companies attempt to cope with higher CPU core counts. We pit our biggest air-cooling sample against two equally massive liquid coolers to see who has the best cooling, lowest noise and greatest value.
We've been drawing comparisons between closed-loop liquid coolers and socket-mounted heat sinks for years, and the reasons for picking one or the other have grown in proportion to cooler size.
Lower cost, reduced maintenance and improved portability remain the rationale for choosing a closed-loop solution instead of custom-installed liquid coolers. But even after consigning open-loop liquid to the most hardcore enthusiasts, we must concede that closed-loop kits face some of the same obstacles. Systems sporting large heat sinks also reduce cost and increase longevity compared to closed-loop liquid, and longevity can also be considered an eventual maintenance issue.
It might seem, then, that big heat sinks win the debate before we even start testing, and that closed-loop coolers need to significantly outperform big heat sinks in order to justify their existence. Yet, most of our tests conclude that there’s no performance gain in adding a pump to your cooling system when the radiator is no larger than the heat sink it replaces. Why would anyone even bother with closed loops, then?
A look at today’s contenders reveals at least two of those answers!
|CPU Cooler Features|
-3 Max Dual
|Height||6.4"||Thickness||1.1" (2.2" w/fans)||3" (Combined)|
|Depth||5.3" (6.4" w/fan)||Depth||12.3"||10.8"|
|Base Height||1.7"||Pump Height||1.3"||1.5"|
|Assy. Offset||None (1.1" w/fan)||Controller||Software||None|
|Cooling Fans||(2) 150 x 25mm||Cooling Fans||(2) 140 x25mm||(2) 120 x 25mm|
|Connectors||(2) 4-Pin||Connectors||USB/SATA/3-PIN||1x 4-Pin, 1x 3-Pin|
|Weight||48 Ounces||Weight||45 Ounces||48 Ounces|
|Intel Sockets||115x, 2011||Intel Sockets||115x, 2011, 1366||115x, 2011, 1366|
|AMD Sockets||4-bolt Rectangular||AMD Sockets||4-bolt Rectangular||4-bolt Rectangular|
|Warranty||Six Years||Warranty||Six Years||One Year|
|Web Price||$95||Web Price||$140||$140|
Who would hang a three-pound cooler off their processor interface, knowing that it’s going to turn into a wrecking ball as soon as the machine gets shipped somewhere? We’ve seen smaller coolers than these break off from the motherboard, smashing surrounding components. That’s a lot of equipment to lose.
And then there’s the matter of clearance. System builder and graphics guru Don Woligroski was forced to take a hacksaw to his high-end memory in order to fit a big CPU cooler into his System Builder Marathon machine. That move earned him the temporary title Hacksaw Don, and the fact that I actually specified DIMM clearance (base height, thickness and assembly offset) in my review of the cooler he used erased any sympathy he might have otherwise garnered.
The only reason we often see “big air” in our System Builder Marathon configurations is because it’s cheaper. Whenever large heat sinks are big enough to outperform closed-loop liquid, we’re left warning readers that their PCs must be handled gingerly. We’ve even been forced to disassemble our completed boxes prior to shipping after one of our winners fell victim to the wrecking-ball effect on a cooler less than half this size.
All of this means that a performance win by Noctua’s NH-D15 would necessitate a flurry of caveats in our final recommendations. NZXT and Zalman better step up!